April 13, 2011

Kaberle can't wait for first postseason with Bruins

by Jesse Connolly

Tomas Kaberle celebrates his goal against the Canadiens in the grudge match at the Garden last month. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Long before he donned the Maple Leafs’ trademark blue-and-white sweater, Tomas Kaberle had envisioned himself in different duds.

As a young, impressionable kid in the Czech Republic, Kaberle and his brother Frantisek — a former NHL defenseman himself — had the occasional opportunity to watch NHL games on television. It was a privilege they cherished, a chance to see their heroes in action and a moment in which, together, they imagined what it would be like to reach such great heights.

Now, after a 12-year run in Toronto that saw him finish second all-time in points among Leafs defensemen, Kaberle has the opportunity to put on the same jersey as the player he once idolized immeasurably.

“Back home growing up, looking at the players, you kind of get to see NHL games on TV,” Kaberle said. “My brother’s favorite was always Paul Coffey, a really offensive-minded defenseman. I always looked up to Raymond Bourque.”

Kaberle now hopes that he can help bring the Stanley Cup back to Boston, something Bourque — the longtime Bruins captain and Hall of Famer — fell just short of in his 20 years with the club.

The opportunity to capture hockey’s Holy Grail has eluded the 33-year-old blueliner for seven arduous seasons. After qualifying for the playoffs in each of his first six seasons with the Leafs, including a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002, Kaberle has found himself on the outside of the postseason, looking in.

“We’re not in the playoffs yet, but hopefully we can settle in and play good hockey the rest of the way,” Kaberle said. “It’s totally different hockey afterward. It’s been awhile. Those first six years, when we played in those playoff games, it was an unbelievable feeling. The fans and players are really into it and it’s a totally different atmosphere. It’s so much faster and exciting, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

Despite Toronto’s struggles since the lockout, as the Leafs try to find their way out of a seemingly never-ending rebuild, Kaberle still looks back on his time there fondly.

“It’s a great hockey city,” he said. “The fans were awesome to me, so I have only good memories. Obviously they weren’t going to extend my contract, so I knew I was going to be on the move. Boston was great for me. It’s a good team and a great organization, and they have a lot of history as well. I’m looking forward to playing here.”

The Bruins’ desire to acquire the gifted defenseman was perhaps the worst-kept secret in all of hockey.

At the NHL draft in 2009, general manager Peter Chiarelli thought he’d finally got his man. But a deal with the Leafs centered around winger Phil Kessel was botched. Ultimately Kessel was dealt to Toronto in September of that year, but Kaberle was not part of the return, as Leafs GM Brian Burke coughed up three draft picks — one of which the Bruins used to select Tyler Seguin — for the high-scoring winger’s services.

And while being on the trading block for what felt like an eternity did weigh on him, Kaberle is infinitely appreciative of how strongly he was wanted here in Boston.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Kaberle, acquired in February by the Bruins in exchange for prospect Joe Colborne, a first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder. “When you’re around the league, some teams want you. It’s better than if nobody wants you. It worked out good for both teams, and hopefully I can do my best and help this team to do something special here.”

Even before his arrival, Kaberle saw a Bruins squad that had all the right ingredients to contend for the Stanley Cup, as the veteran defenseman praised the team’s stellar depth and bevy of talent.

“We’ve got four lines, and they can all score,” Kaberle said. “They’re good offensive guys and defensive as well. We’ve got great goalies. That’s what you need. You need a deep lineup to go far in the playoffs.”

Going far in the playoffs hasn’t been the easiest task for the Black and Gold over the past two decades. After bowing out in Game 7 of the second round in consecutive seasons, both of which came in an expectedly devastating fashion, the Bruins blew an opportunity to reach their first conference finals since way back in 1992.

With the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics all having won championships in the past decade, many hope that Kaberle will prove to be the missing piece to the Bruins puzzle, much like Curt Schilling and Kevin Garnett were to their respective squads.

“It’s a strong message to our team, to our fans that we want to win and we want to be successful,” Chiarelli said following Kaberle’s acquisition.

Although the price the Bruins GM paid may have been steep — especially because Kaberle is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and there’s no guarantee he’ll stay in Boston — Chiarelli believes the move was a necessary one.

 “We felt that we needed a player like Tomas,” he said. “A player with good vision, a good skater who can quarterback a power play, has played many games in the league. A very smart, heady player who can skate.” 

Given the lofty expectations, Kaberle will be under a lot of pressure to perform in the postseason and help his new club reach the promise-land.

But the slick, puck-moving defenseman, whose calm, humble demeanor is in stark contrast to the eccentric ways of both Schilling and Garnett, doesn’t want to get ahead of himself when looking at the big picture.

“Just to play my game,” Kaberle said of his approach to helping this team out come playoff time. “Obviously, (the Bruins) knew about my game, having gone against them so many times every season. So they kind of knew what kind of player I am. I hope I can bring some offense and give the power play a little boost. But I just have to play simple hockey and hopefully I can help out in the playoffs.”

The Bruins’ loyal fan base, starved of a championship for 39 long years, hopes so, too.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com